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On "Bird-Witted"


Margaret Holly

It is against this backdrop of ambiguous beauty that Moore constructs her far more frequent positive portraits of feminine figures. One of the strongest of these is, not surprisingly, the mothers, almost all of them in animal form, who appear in Moore's poems of the thirties and forties after her early interest in the male artists as subjects had abated. Moore lived with her mother all her life until Mrs. Moore's death in 1947, and this was a mother of uncommon intellectual gifts and all-too-common possessiveness. Part of the hero's character includes this animal quality in "the feelings of a mother—a / woman or a cat" (MM 9). There is the "mouse with a / grape in its hand and its child / in its mouth" in "Camellia Sabina" (MM 17), and in "He Digesteth Harde Yron" the ostrich who

                . . . watches his chicks with
     a maternal concentration—and he's
been mothering the eggs

at night six weeks—his legs
    their only weapon of defense. (MM 99)

This spirit of maternal protection is one place where Moore's female figures come into the full strength of their fierce devotion. One of her very few wholly narrative poems, "Bird-Witted," depicts the feeding and defending of three fledgling mockingbirds by their mother. Her enemy in the final lines, the "intellectual cautious- / ly creeping cat," can easily upstage the interesting central drama of the poem, which is the transformation of personality brought on not only by the approaching danger of the cat but also by motherhood itself:

                    . . . What delightful note
        with rapid unexpected flute
sounds leaping from the throat
        of the astute
grown bird, comes back to one from
the remote
                    unenergetic sun-
                    lit air before
the brood was here? How harsh
the bird's voice has become. (MM 106)

The mock heroic "bayonet beak" and "cruel wings" of the bird defending her brood, a seriocomic scene that Mrs. Moore could surely appreciate, are modulated to a quieter kind of strength in "The Paper Nautilus," a study of reciprocated maternal love. Within the "thin glass shell" constructed by the nautilus, the "glass ram's-horn-cradled freight / is hid but is not crushed" (MM 121). This distinction between protection and injury was clearly an important one to a poet living creatively within her mother's house. The chosen aspect of this arrangement on Miss Moore's part, to continue to read autobiographically for the moment, is the affirmation with which the poem ends, the offspring's reciprocal holding on to the shell,

            round which the arms had
wound themselves as if they knew love
            is the only fortress
            strong enough to trust to. (MM 122)

Moore's embodiment of maternal behavior in animal figures not only affirms the instinctual nature of such behavior in general but also reflects (and to some extent explains) the ever-present animal kingdom of pet-names by which the Moore family members expressed their attachments to one another. In the overall picture of woman, however, maternal strength is but one outstanding example of the strong temperament, the mettle that informs Moore's portraits both of women in general and of the woman as an artist.

from "Portraits of Ladies in Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop." Sagetrieb Vol. 6, No. 3.


Jeanne Heuving

Although most of "Bird-Witted" is told from the vantage of the birds' nest, Moore briefly breaks the ongoing present of her narrative to include a vision of "the remote / unenergetic sun- / lit air before / the brood was here." Like the presence of the piebald cat, the thought of the brood's previous and utter absence creates a pall. The small aside gives a dusky center to the poem, as powerful as the unspeakable truths of sexuality and kinship central to many of Faulkner's fiction.

From Omissions are not Accidents: Gender in the Art of Marianne Moore. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1992. Copyright 1992 by Wayne State UP.


Charles Molesworth

In "Bird-Witted" Moore continues to explore the tensions of innocence and fallenness, but in a more playful vein. The subject of innocence has a biographical origin. She described the birds outside her window—and compared herself to them—in great detail in two letters, one to Warner, and another to Bryher. The letters were typical of her daily accounts of things, where she represented natural phenomena in terms of both nature, as when she compared the birds to penguins, and culture, as in the figure of the tone of a broken carriage-spring. The letters also show clearly how the poem had its origin in Moore's family feelings, as the bird nest obviously symbolizes the trio of mother, daughter, and son. At the climactic moment of drama in "Bird-Witted, " the parent is seen as "darting down," paradoxically "nerved by what chills / the blood," and the bird is "by hope rewarded—of toil." The syntax is not straightforward here, but the meaning seems to be that hope is rewarded only when there is the attendant toil—surely a sentiment in which Mrs. Moore and both her children would emphatically concur. If the birds' nest is seen as a sort of "flower bed" or garden of innocence, then it requires more than vigilance to protect it.

Moore wrote of "Bird-Witted" in terms that might well support a complex reading of the poem, for she was to claim for it a tightness of form and a level of struggle that are considerable. Along with "The Paper Nautilus" of a few years later, "Bird-Witted" is Moore's reflection on the closeness of maternal love, and also the dynamic tensions it can create in the drama of individuation. In a letter to Warner on November 27, 1934, Mrs. Moore, called "Mouse," is described as having shared the compositional process with her daughter, and the poet saw herself in animal terms, as well as a protective, maternal figure. Being "bird-witted" for Moore may well have involved not only a feeling of belonging to a well-guarded nest but also having the self-protection needed to achieve one's own expressiveness.

from Marianne Moore: A Literary Life. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1990. Copyright 1990 by Charles Molesworth. 


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